Real World Considerations and the Credit Related Funds System

Introduction

Before concluding our study of working capital and moving on to Part Three and the role of strategic debtor investment, let us summarise our position so far.

We began by explaining why an excess of current assets over current liabilities (net working capital) revealed by published financial statements is highly desirable. Conventional accounting analysis dictates that if the balance is positive it measures the extent to which a company can finance any future increase in sales turnover, or alternatively fixed asset investment.

Conversely, if the balance is zero, or worse still negative, it may be a sign of trouble. The firm is assumed to possess no working capital, since the net cash inflows from future operations must be committed to the repayment of existing financial obligations.

However, we have also noted why an interpretation of a "surplus" as an indicator of financial strength may be misleading. It could relate to assets (fixed or current) already committed to a firm's existing operations. Likewise, a working capital "deficiency" might be a temporary consequence of a sound investment strategy designed to generate future profitability.

Only when firms cease trading do accounting notions of solvency and liquidity give any indication of their "true" credit-worthiness. As a going concern, it is a firm's ability to exploit its future trading position that determines an adequacy of cash resources to meet debts as they fall due.

Real World Considerations

Debt-paying ability is a dynamic concept, which should not depend upon external user attitudes (notably creditors) towards statements of current financial position, but rather the firm's future operating efficiency. This was defined in the previous Chapter as the inter-relationship between:

- Future cash profitability,

- The operating cycle (the conversion period of assets to cash),

- The financing cycle (the repayment period granted by creditors).

Even within the context of providing creditor information, the traditional notion of working capital is suspect. You will recall that we began our review of an accounting approach to its analysis with a number of anomalies.

We observed that solvency underpinned by liquidity is a cash flow concept. Yet its evaluation using published financial statements is placed within a pyramid of ratios. This defines profitability (ROCE) at its apex as revenues minus expenses on an accrual basis. So, taking a worst case scenario, a firm might generate sales. But what if its customers fail to pay? Debtors will rise, thereby increasing current assets, perhaps "improving" its working capital position. A "profit" will still be recorded in the published accounts and taxed. Shareholders will anticipate a dividend. Employees may demand a pay rise on the strength of this. Yet, none of these events are supported by a corresponding cash inflow.

There is also the vexed question of inflation in historical cost accounts. We all know that price level changes distort financial ratios because revenue flows are valued at different times and by different amounts, relative to assets, costs and expenses. Even the cash figures will be at different values to those used for reporting sales over the period.

Finally, not only are accounting profitability and cash flow liquidity different concepts, they can also move in different directions. Many decisions to improve profitability may have an adverse effect on liquidity and vice versa. One obvious example is fixed asset investment, which compromises current debt-paying ability. Another is a build up of liquid assets as interest rates fall. To return to the previous Chapter's theoretical proposition:

The normative objective of efficient working capital management should be to minimise current assets and maximise current liabilities (underpinned by the terms of sale to debtors and creditors) subject to the constraint of maintaining a sound liquidity position, which also maximises opportunities for fixed asset investment.

Unfortunately, even with access to the cash flow information that satisfies this objective, it is debatable whether creditors would tolerate the firm it supplies receiving payment from customers before they are paid (revealed by turnover ratios). Debtors too, may take their trade elsewhere. Much depends upon the bargaining positions of suppliers and customers relative to the company concerned, the nature of competition and state of the economy.

Disparities between internal cash flow and reported accounting profit explain why companies are mindful of external user attitudes and choose favorable publication dates for their accounts.

When balancing profitability, solvency and liquidity, window dressing can also come into play before companies publish their accounts. Because conventional wisdom dictates that external users feel comfortable with current asset ratios of 2:1 and liquidity ratios in excess of 1:1, levels of inventory, cash and marketable securities can be temporarily adjusted by management. Creditors may be repaid early and overdraft facilities reviewed. Even dividend and investment policies can be modified. In this way, the "true" internal working capital position during the preceding period can be disguised by legitimate creative accounting techniques to confound its year-end interpretation by external users.

For those outside the firm (looking in) the relationship between a company's operating and financial cycles also becomes more problematical if it is a manufacturer, rather than a trader (like the firm analyzed in our previous Chapter's Review Activity).

If you refer back to Chapter Two (Figure 2.2) and Chapter Four (Figure 4.1) we observed that the net operating cycle for a manufacturing company is not simply the comparatively short period of time taken by a trading company to sell products or services bought in. It is the extended period between expenditure on raw materials, work in progress, finished goods and the eventual receipt of cash (which includes the period of credit granted to customers) less the time taken to pay suppliers.

Apart from the high degree of estimation associated with the fact that company accounts may be based on historical cost (which weakens their analysis) from a regulatory perspective, there may also be no legal requirement to publish detailed categories of inventory, such as investment in raw materials and work in progress, nor provide purchase figures.

Activity 1 Kraftwork plc (£million)

Year One

Year Two

Average

Raw material purchases

85.0

90.2

87.6

Cost of goods sold

125.0

140.0

132.5

Sales

136.0

156.0

146.0

Raw material inventory

18.0

20.4

19.2

Work in progress inventory

12.5

14.5

13.5

Finished goods inventory

10.0

15.0

12.5

Debtors

26.5

29.5

28.0

Creditors

11.0

13.0

12.0

Let us assume that as a basis for analysis, we have access to all the managerial data, including categories of inventory and raw material purchases, contained in the table above for Kraftwork plc.

(a) Using a traditional working capital approach, summarise the company's position one year to the next.

(b) Reformulate the data to produce average turnover ratios and tabulate the company's average operating, financing and net operating cycles.

(c) Comment briefly on your results.

(a) Working Capital

The first points to note are that current assets are significantly higher than current liabilities in both years, so that on average the firm remains theoretically solvent. Comparing one year to the next, net working capital (current assets minus current liabilities) has also risen from £56 million to £66.4 million.

(b) The Working Capital Cycles

Kraftwork plc: The Working Capital Cycles

Kraftwork plc: The Working Capital Cycles

Using the formulation explained in Chapter Four (Figure 4.1) we can transform the annual accounting data for Kraftwork to reveal an average operating cycle well in excess of its corresponding financing cycle. The average, net operating cycle, expressed in days itemized above, is obtained by calculating the arithmetic means of the respective turnover ratios for each year and subtracting the creditor figure from inventories plus debtors.

(c) The Interpretation

The net operating cycle confirms the firm's overall working capital position. Kraftwork remains theoretically solvent. However, because the turnover ratios that define the working capital cycles are based on annual data, they have been distorted by all the variations in current assets and liabilities, which have occurred from one period to the next. So, each component requires further investigation.

The periodic increase in net working capital may be justified and interpreted as an indicator of financial strength. Particularly because it is accompanied by an increase in sales and a proportionately greater increase in gross profit (measured by sales less cost of goods sold).

On the other hand, perhaps there have still been missed opportunities for economies of scale. All aspects of stock turnover should have been increased, debtor policies tightened, and the period of credit granted by suppliers extended, subject to no loss of goodwill.

Unfortunately, only internal management has access to this qualitative information, leaving external users of accounts with a quantitative analysis of the financial data that the company chooses to provide.

 
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